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A road trip through Northern Spain

Last updated 20 February 2021

Our road trip through Northern Spain starts and finishes in Barcelona, following the general direction of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It takes us through the quiet regions of Asturias, Galicia and Basque Country, giving us a very different view of the country to big cities and coastal resorts.

We hire what the man at the car rental company calls a “Spanish Ferrari” - a little, red diesel Seat. We take a huge amount of time to get organised, struggling with traffic, GPS and driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Eventually, we manage to make our way out of the city. Our next goal is finding our first stop: a farmhouse in a little town just outside Zaragoza.

Zaragoza (Saragossa)

Unfortunately, the farmhouse proves almost impossible to find. It literally takes us hours, even with the exact coordinates and working GPS - but we get there in the end. It’s at the edge of the tiny village of Cartuja Baya with a big courtyard, wooden furniture and scraggly plants. It’s hot and we’ve just realised we don’t speak any Spanish and know almost nothing about northern Spain. We take a walk through the small village and find it almost deserted in August. There’s a pretty church and not much else, and it’s painfully obvious we’ll have to head into the city for food. Once stocked up, we enjoy the quiet, and we take a few days to regroup, catch up on work and ease into a new country.

Walking down the street in Zaragoza
A colourful, painted staircase in Zaragoza, Spain

We visit Zaragoza and I’m amazed by the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. It seems so big and gilded for a church that isn’t on the top 10 lists of things to see in Spain. I think it’s one of my favourites. We walk further through the town and stumble across the ruins of the Roman forum. Despite seeing similar things in many cities around Europe, I’m enchanted.

After a short amount of time in the city, we realise English isn’t really spoken here, and we struggle through ordering food and making small purchases. We don’t see any other tourists and we like that we can blend in perfectly and unremarkably, with no one trying to sell us anything as we walk through the pretty streets.

Basque Country

We drive through Aragon on our way to Basque country, passing golden fields and pretty hill towns. Eventually we arrive in a beautiful town called Balmaseda, our home for the next few days. We’re staying at a bed and breakfast run by a lovely couple, who don’t speak English.

The beautiful town of Balmaseda

The beautiful town of Balmaseda

They are incredibly welcoming and we manage to communicate through hand signals, context, some basic French and Google Translate. They find the only people in the town who can speak English to help us communicate, and a visit to a cousin’s farm helps us to find our way around a menu. We also learn more about Basque country and have a long, late dinner with them and their friends one night.

Balmaseda is tucked into the mountains, but only a short drive from Bilbao and the coast, so we explore the region. Bilbao is one of our favourite cities. We wander around the Guggenheim Museum for a few hours, walk through most of the city and find some great food.

Details of the bridge in Bilbao

Details of the bridge in Bilbao

A street in Bilbao's old town

A street in Bilbao's old town

On sunny days, we take long scenic drives to the coast, and pintxos (bread-based tapas) and our first Basque-style tortilla – an omelette on a large piece of baguette. The seaside villages are charming, we drive along green mountain roads and the lush scenery reminds us of New Zealand. We see some beautiful places but unfortunately don't get as far as famous San Sebastian and promise ourselves we'll visit on our next trip to the region.

Asturias

The pretty mountain backdrop and green hills continue into Asturias. We’ve booked an AirBnB high above a town and when we arrive, I’m shocked by how remote it is. We’re staying in the hamlet of Positana, nestled high into the mountains with amazing views of sweeping valleys and distant mountains. There are only about six houses up there and I’m initially horrified that there isn’t even a church in the settlement (I’m not religious, but a church is definitely a mark of civilization in Europe). Once we settle in, we love the peaceful setting, and we find it a convenient base for exploring the region.

A church in Gijon

A church in Gijon

The golden beach in Gijon

The golden beach in Gijon

We stay in a charming cottage with our host, Rachel, who is English and has been living in Spain for many years. At night we cook, and have long chats over dinner and local wine. I become enchanted by our tiny enclave high in the hills and marvel at how bright the stars are at night. During the day we take long drives through the countryside, visiting some gorgeous beaches, and the cities of Orviedo and Gigon.

In Gijon's old town, perched on a clifftop above the ocean, we try the local cider. Asturian apple cider deserves a little aside – made from local apples, it’s a cloudy, slightly sour drink with a very distinctive smell. It comes in dark bottles and is poured from a height, the waiter standing with the bottle over his head, into your glass in a steady stream. The last inch or so of cider is always left behind, due to the sediment, and is then tossed to the side. In the evenings, Gijon’s gutters, like those of many towns in the region, run with cider.

Galicia

Cathedral Square in Santiago de Compostela

Cathedral Square in Santiago de Compostela

We end our trip in Santiago, where we watched all the pilgrims culminate at the cathedral. We spend most of our time there wandering through the old town, finding tapas and local wine. We drive along the coast, just stopping short of the Portugal border, and have lunch by the sparkling bays.

Over the next few days, we try Galician-style pulpo, locally-caught octopus cooked in olive oil and paprika, and sample Pimientos de Padró, baby green peppers fried in olive oil and dusted with sea salt. The nights are warm and long and we often stroll back to our apartment after dark. Summer in Galicia is idyllic.

Burgos

On the way back to Barcelona, we find ourselves in a little village just outside of Burges called Vivar del Cid. We only stay for a night, in an old B&B. Our room is cool and dark, with a stone wall on one side and lots of wood. The village was everything I imagined a Spanish village would be. It was calm and restful.

Later, we go to the main city of Burgos for dinner. It's pretty with a silver cathedral and wide, tree-lined streets.

Looking across the river at the old gate into Burgos

Our road trip was a beautiful introduction to Spain and some of its different regions. We loved seeing the diverse beauty of the northern part of the country and the contrasting landscapes and people. Most of all, we valued having this chance to get to know the country a little before losing ourselves in busy Barcelona.

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